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Exploring press freedom in Sierra Leone

By Allieu Sahid Tunkara

As freedom of the press becomes one of the hottest topics for debates favouring the enactment of the freedom of information laws in contemporary societies, Sierra Leone joined the bandwagon when it passed into law the Right to Access Information (RAI) Act 2012.

The quest for freedom of information is heightened by the urge for development, which has been tied to democratisation, free speech and information and communications technology.

In Sierra Leone the promulgation of this law was greeted with widespread elation by a great majority of Sierra Leoneans, especially media practitioners and researchers, a class of people interested in sourcing information without hindrance.

Journalists, by virtue of their daily requirement of information, have been more concerned with the law.

RAI is in agreement with a fundamental provision in the country’s supreme law. This provision is found in Section 11 Act No.6 of the 1991 Constitution. It reads: “The press, radio and television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this constitution and highlight the responsibility and accountability of government to the people.”

To ensure that media practitioners effectively carry out this function, Section 25(1) is also entrenched in the same constitution and it reads: “...no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of expression...the said freedom includes the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference...”

Although these key provisions have always been in the constitution, media practitioners have been constrained in eliciting information especially from public authorities owing to the absence of the information Act. The passage of the law in 2012 therefore presented a major opportunity for journalists.

But in spite of the initial euphoria surrounding the enactment, it is worthwhile to note that the law in question contains provisions that have element of constraint on media practitioners.

One such provisions is found in Section 6(1) which borders on the payment of specified fees by an applicant for information, charged by a public authority. This provision does not exempt journalists who apply for information to a public authority implying that the effort of the media in informing society is still thwarted by this law.

Apart from this legal obstacle, there are restrictions in the search for information buried in sections 12 to 26 in part 111 of the information law titled: ‘Exempt Information.’ The provisions say that requests for information bordering on national security and defence, international relations, economy, investigations and law enforcement and historical records, could be dishonoured if the information is seriously expected to be  prejudicial to national security or to relations between Sierra Leone and any other country.

Although every right or law must have either limitations or restrictions imposed on those for whom they are created, these particular restrictions constitute a stumbling block to media practice as they fail to highlight the parameters relating to the information deemed prejudicial.

The Act is also not clear on who decides, at the time the request is made, which form of information is prejudicial. Is it the journalist or the custodian of information?

Apart from these restrictions, media practitioners are also particularly concerned with the absence of a provision that places a public authority under legal obligation to respond to interview request by journalists which would have gone a long way in empowering media practitioners and providing the public with a barrage of crucial information.

One of the tremendous benefits associated with information flow in society is that it weakens the pillars of vices and strengthens those of virtues. This subscribes to the opinion of a one-time US Supreme Court justice, Louise Brandeis, who was quoted in a document titled:‘Heart of Change’ originated by PANOS institute in London as saying that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

This means that information which is metaphorically referred to as sunlight is imbued with the power of exposing corrupt practices, hence rid society of filth.

At the mercy of officials

As it stands, young media practitioners, particularly intern journalists, are expressing deep frustrations over the treatment they receive from public officials who they approach for interviews on specific matters of public concern. This situation is worrisome because it is within the discretion of these public officials to talk to the press or not to talk to the press, especially so for agencies that do not have either public relations or communication officers.

Abdul Karim Sankoh, an intern journalist attached to the Ministry of Information and Communications, said he had almost always encountered such embarrassment whenever he’d out to source information from public officials.

“It is really necessary to include a provision in the information law that penalises public officials who dodge interviews from journalists,” Sankoh said.

Augusta Koroma, a female journalist, remarked that most times media practitioners are at the mercy of public officials whenever they go to them for information.

“They treat journalists with contempt,” Augusta said. These hurdles in the information flow undoubtedly tramples on the right to know which is very crucial to the practice of democratic good governance in any nation.

One of the cardinal features of democracy is that sovereignty belongs to the people from whom government through the constitution derive its power, legitimacy and authority. The people are therefore entitled to know what is happening in public institutions. It does little good when public officials give out information only when they host press conferences or news briefings where most times they select journalists who should pose questions, most times, the soft questions.

Arrest and detention

Clearly press freedom has not been sufficiently enhanced by any of our free press legislations. And arrest and incarceration of journalists are areas of grave concern.

In 2014, in particular, most journalists were arrested on libel, contempt of court and false publication charges. These journalists were Ibrahim Samura and Kashore Holland Cole who were remanded at Pa Demba Road correctional centre for media related offences.

Also, Jonathan Leigh and Bai Bai Sesay of the Independent observer, Sorie Fofanah and Sheik Bawoh, Managing Editor and Editor respectively of the Global Times newspaper, Moses Kargbo and Fidelis Adele, Editor and Proprietor of Concord Times newspaper, Thomas Dickson, Editor of Salone Times newspaper, etc.

Most times, some are released without charges. Cognisant of the situation above, President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) Kelvin Lewis, have repeatedly called on the relevant authorities to decriminalise libel laws so that media practitioners would not be criminally prosecuted for minor infractions of the media laws.

In his ‘State of the Association Report - June 2014’, the President urged the authorities to treat the Independent Media Commission (IMC) as a court of first instance for violation of media laws by journalists, the same way the Political Parties Registration Commission is treated when it comes to settling disputes within political parties, before seeking court redress.

“The IMC as the regulator is meant to act as stop-gap measure for the number of court cases against media practitioners,” Lewis told delegates at the 2014 SLAJ’s annual general meeting.

The SLAJ leadership intends to approach the Law Reform Commission to propose to government for a similar safeguard that has been given to the PPRC.

The law, as it relates to the PPRC, states that any political issue which has not been taken first to the Commission or that by-passes it, will be thrown out of court.

The appeal for the IMC to be seen as a court of first instance is similarly found in the joint media submission to the ConstitutionalReview Committee titled: “Proposed Chapter Twelve.”

This document is one of the media proposals to the CRC to have a chapter in the constitution the same way the army, the police and other public institutions have in the constitution so that the media can be seen as important agency of the state.

Media practitioners believe that it is only when these legal loopholes are rectified that the Sierra Leone mass media can inscribe true press freedom on their banners.

(C) Politico 20/01/16